Biography of One-Armed Pianist Paul Wittgenstein Part 2

About the famous musician Paul Wittgenstein, biography and history of the one-armed pianist.


Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961)

After the loss of his arm, he did left-handed keyboard exercises to break up the monotony of camp life in Omsk. As he became more accomplished at playing with one hand, he began to envision a return to the concert stage. In fact, he established that as his goal and set about making his remaining five fingers sound like ten. "It was like attempting to scale a mountain," he said. "If you can't climb up from one side, you try another." In 1916 he gave his first one-handed recital to critical acclaim.

Unfortunately, his handicap severely limited his repertoire, since few existing piano pieces could be adapted for a one-handed pianist. Between 1918 and 1921 Wittgenstein dug through musical archives in search of selections that could be arranged for the left hand. He found little, but his wealth enabled him to commission works by some of the foremost composers of his day. In addition to the Ravel concerto, Wittgenstein bought pieces from Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, and others, not all of which he found suitable. When Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev sent him a specially written concerto in 1931, Wittgenstein promptly returned it with the following note: "Thank you for the concerto, but I don't understand a note of it, and shall not play it." Wittgenstein and Ravel feuded for a time over alterations the pianist had made in performance of the Concerto for the Left Hand, but Wittgenstein eventually conceded that the work should be played as it was written. Wittgenstein's musical tastes ran to 19th-century pieces, which posed some problems for him when he dealt with modern composers.

Special music was the only concession Wittgenstein ever made to his handicap. When a piano company offered to install a custom-made pedal in his instrument, he refused, saying, "People would say the piano was fixed." He constantly struggled to make his recitals more than just a freak show; as The New York Times commented in a review in 1934, "His physical handicap was forgotten. Not only this: he showed commanding musicianship and played with an aplomb and gusto thrice admirable."

In 1938 Wittgenstein with his wife, Hilde, and their three children settled permanently in New York. He continued to give concerts, taught piano at the Ralph Wolfe Conservatory in New Rochelle, and opened a studio in New York City for private students. A patient and kind but exacting teacher, Wittgenstein encouraged many one-armed pianists, who found great inspiration in their teacher's stamina and energy. He himself practiced four hours a day until his death in 1961 at age 73.

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